Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy and the Talpiot Tomb

I have often attempted to articulate here what I see as some of the difficulties with the claims made by those involved with the TV documentaries The Lost Tomb of Jesus (2007) and The Resurrection Tomb Mystery / The Jesus Discovery (2012).  Earlier today a blog commenter made me aware of a phenomenon known as "The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy", which is nicely explained in this short Youtube video:

In my post on Returning Once Again to the Names in the Talpiot Tomb, I had attempted to explain that one of the difficulties for the claim that Talpiot Tomb A belonged to the family of Jesus was that names that correlate with early Christian texts are celebrated while names that do not correlate are ignored.  It is a kind of cherry-picking of the data.  Paul Regnier then commented:
There is simply no evidence that Jesus was married, or had children, or more specifically that he had a son named Judas. As mentioned above, you can't draw attention to matches with the NT record and ignore non-matches. Focusing on a piece of data that does fit a theory and ignoring the pieces of evidence that do not fit has a name - it's called the Texas sharpshooter fallacy.
Daniel McRaney explains on his website You Are Not So Smart: A Celebration of Self-Delusion why it is called The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy:
The fallacy gets its name from imagining a cowboy shooting at a barn. Over time, the side of the barn becomes riddled with holes. In some places there are lots of them, in others there are few. If the cowboy later paints a bullseye over a spot where his bullet holes clustered together it looks like he is pretty good with a gun.
The relevance to the Talpiot Tomb claims is that a cluster of names in a given tomb is only impressive if that cluster is not contaminated with non-matches and contradictory evidence.  It is true that Jesus son of Joseph, Mary and Joses are also found among Jesus' family names in early Christian texts, but Matthew and Judas son of Jesus are not.

The same issue appears again in relation to the claim that a stick man, allegedly the figure of Jonah with seaweed wrapped around his head, is drawn into the head of the "fish" in the tomb:

The changing lines of the stick man Jonah (left: original; right: new version)
See The Changing Figure of the Stick Man in Talpiot Tomb B

James Tabor has offered two different versions of the stick man, utilizing different lines on each occasion, the earlier version to the left above and the later version to the right.  In my analogy, this is akin to the Texas sharpshooter drawing the target around holes, or here to the attempt to isolate specific lines that may or may not help us to see the presence of a stick man differently configured each time.

The same issue crops up again in relation to the alleged letters now seen in the "head" of the "fish":

Alleged letters spelling out "Jonah" on James Tabor's blog
This interpretation, attributed to James Charlesworth, isolates parts of some of the lines seen in at the bottom of the vessel (the "head" of the "fish") and suggests that they spell out the name Jonah, YWNH.  The difficulty is that there are lots of lines there, and one can only see YWNH by ignoring lines and parts of lines.  Once again, it is like the Texas sharpshooter drawing his target around the bullet-holes in the side of the barn.  (See further Do the lines in the "fish" head spell out Jonah;  With Each New "Jonah Ossuary" Photo, Multiple New Problems and links there and Talpiot Tomb B: Connected and Unconnected Lines).  

As Daniel McRaney writes, 
Anywhere people are searching for meaning, you will see the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. For many, the world loses luster when you accept the idea random mutations can lead to eyeballs or random burn patterns on toast can look like a person’s face.
And of course it is possible to spot the face of Jesus on the side of one of the ossuaries in Talpiot Tomb B, just as it is possible to see a fish in another ossuary in the same tomb, a stick man and letters in its head, and Jesus' family in the tomb next door.


Unknown said...

once they put on those jonah colored glasses, they can see just about anything they want to see.

the logical fallacies have been abundant since day one. and now that nicole austin is admitting the 'arimathea' claim was a merely coincidental 'irony of history,' you can see how much they relied on wishful interpretation...

btw, your 'texas sharpshooter' fallacy reminded me of the outlas josey wales (or is it yosi ;-)

Steven Carr said...

'As mentioned above, you can't draw attention to matches with the NT record and ignore non-matches.'

The Talpiot people should have acknowledged that something that matches in parts with the NT record is not proof in itself.

What is the NT record about the family of Jesus?

Matthew and Luke give two different names for the grandfather of Jesus.

Mark and Matthew have one list of names of the brothers of Jesus, while Luke/Acts removes from history any notion of Jesus having a brother called James.

How can we ever know who made up the family of Jesus, when the NT record doesn't even match itself?

J. Phillip Arnold, Ph.D. said...

The statistical probability of the names in Talpiot being the same names as in the Jesus family decreases greatly if we use only our earliest sources for the names of Jesus family--Paul's letters. He writes by name of no Mary, no Joseph, no Martha, no other brother than James. The only names that we have evidence in Paul that he identifies as belonging to the Jesus Family are James and Jesus.

The traditional names of Jesus family, such as Mary and Joseph, come from the gospels written years later. A critical view of these later sources could argue that in order to portray Jesus as a new Moses or Deliverer, traditional Jewish names such as Joseph and Mary were created for his family origins, as well as "messianic genealogies" replete with specific names in that tradition. Also, Anna and Simeon come to mind as examples of such possible creativity on Luke's part.

In this way, the collection of names at Talpiot would actually indicate that a reservoir of traditional names circulated widely in the culture that would be available to the gospel writers as they sought to locate Jesus among the heroic families of Israel. Such cultural sources as Talpiot begat the nomenclature drawn on by the gospel writers.

If we don't know the actual names of Jesus family members, except for James, no statistical study to determine the likelihood of the Talpiot dead being members of the Jesus Family would have merit.

Phil Arnold said...

Well now that all of you have expended a large amount of time proving that those in the Talpiot tombs had nothing to do with a family of Jesus, how about discussing who you think those people might have been? Or is that subject also just too obvious, and boring. I mean we have at least one sharpshooter archaeologist who writes to this blog.

Mike Holmes said...

@geoff I think it's obvious that people in disagreement with Dr. Tabor and co's conclusion on Talpiot A would say that it is a Jewish family. If you're asking to identify with more specificity, I feel that is asking a bit too much. Unfortunately we do not have data on every Yeshua that lived in the 2nd Temple era.

Eliyahu said...

So it all falls into the "this can't be," category. The names that do have provenance are rejected along with those that don't have the provenance you agree with. If they were names that were verified to not be of Yeshua bar Yosef's family then you would have logic on your side but now you have reasoning from nothing, ad ignorantium. said...

OK mh1291, lets get basic.

Can we say what kind of Jewish family was buried in the Talpiot tomb? Was it a priestly family? Was it an aristocratic priestly family? Was it a well-off Jewish family? Do the names tell us anything? From the ossuaries is it possible to tell what kind of belief this family had in the after-life? Did this Jewish family believe in a kind of resurrection? Why did they preserve the bones as distinct from burial in a trench grave? Were the ossuaries simply a matter of being wealthy, or did belief come into it as well? If belief came into it, then what about the beliefs of the poorer sort who were buried in trench graves?

Mike Holmes said...

@Geoff I think most of those are possibilities, however those are givens that you study when a tomb is excavated and removed. I was just hoping you weren't going for the, "If it's not Jesus of Nazareth, we have to find out specifically which Jesus it was." It's not too boring or useless of a study, and I seriously doubt anyone on this blog would say so. The tomb is fascinating regardless of who was inside it.

Richard Bauckham said...

To Geoff and mh1291: Really this is not a very interesting tomb. It merely contains some ossuaries with examples of several of the most common Jewish names of the period inscribed on them. It tells us nothing else about these people except that they were sufficiently wealthy to have family tomb and ossuaries. There are dozens of more interesting tombs!
I think we can safely say that only a minority of the families of Jerusalem could afford ossuaries or rock cut tombs. As far as I remember these are pretty ordinary ossuaries, not very fancy ones. Whether ossuary burial implies belief in bodily resurrection has been much discussed, without any very conclusive result, except that we know that the high priestly families, generally thought to have been Sadducees who did not believe in resurrection, used ossuaries. So, if the custom started for theological reasons, it was adopted by all the Jerusalem elite and cannot tell us about the views of particular people buried in particular ossuaries. I'm sure lots of poor people expected resurrection but couldn't afford ossuaries said...

To Richard:

How much does the view for high priestly families not believing in the resurrection depend upon the writings attributed to Josephus? They surely believed in an after-life, as did all Jews, including the poorer sort. So may be it wasn't resurrection that they debated about, but rather what happened to their spirit after death. All Jews believed that they had a spirit. Some believed that their spirit went to a waiting place, like a tomb, before rising. Others believed that their spirit rose immediately at death. So resurrection of the body doesn't seem to have a place.

Daniel said...

Excellent post and it reminded me of a quote from Jody Magness, which I will paraphrase: real archaeologists don't go out in search of the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail. Why? Because the goal corrupts the search. Talpiot B was explored with the goal of lending credence to the theories, claims and statistical voodoo that characterized Talpiot A. So, what do the "researchers" find when they explore Talpiot B? Information that lends credence to Talpiot A! Imagine that.

Here's another phrase that fits into the sharpshooter analogy: a circle can be drawn at any point.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

I apologise if this is a stupid question, but is there any way for a laymen to find the frequencies of names in 1st C Palestine?

I've been wondering about about Simon Magus. How likely is it that there were two prominent followers of Jesus named Simon? I can't help but think that it's too much of a coïncidence have Simon the Rock face down Simon the Magician.

(I do recall reading that at least in some of the apocrypha Simon Magus is a stand-in for Paul, but I don't know if that's relevant.)